A former B.C. NDP premier and one-time federal Liberal cabinet minister has some sobering words concerning the erosion of the separation of church and state in Canada in the wake of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent “religious pilgrimage” to India.
“In this story, there are larger issues that get actually get lost,” Ujjal Donanjh told the Now-Leader. “The larger issues are that you have in fact, almost sort-of, a religionization of Canadian politics when you have Hindu days and Sikh days, and politicians attend temples, but I don‘t see them attending many churches, because the social contract in Canada is that there is a separation between church and state.”
“And I hate that that contract is kind of eroding a bit, when politicians begin to look at communities through the prism of religion. And then the prime minister actually took it a step further by going to a foreign country on a trade mission and then making it all about religious pilgrimage.
“That is scarier for me than anything else, as a Canadian,” Dosanjh said. “I cherish the separation of church and state.”
Dosanjh is a Sikh and served as Canada’s first Indo-Canadian premier in B.C., from 2000-01, and federal minister of health in Paul Martin’s government from 2004-06.
On Monday he watched the first question period since the controversy broke, and Trudeau wasn’t in the House.
“The NDP didn’t ask a single question about this trip, so that should tell you all about the state of politics,” Dosanjh said. “I think that this is all about identity politics and political parties are sinking into the sinkhole of identity politics.
“That should kind of tell you where the Canadian politics is at – it is the religionization of Canadian politics and the NDP is vying with the Liberals for the so-called Sikh vote. That’s why they wouldn’t ask a single question.”
Dosanjh is now retired but is still a member of the Liberal Party of Canada. “I’m still active in the sense I still give them money,” he noted.
Meantime, Surrey Liberal MP Randeep Sarai last week offered in a prepared statement an “apology without reservation” for his role in what has proved to be a public relations disaster for the Trudeau government.
Sarai has not yet responded to calls from the Now-Leader for comment on how a Sikh extremist found guilty of trying to assassinate an Indian cabinet minister in 1986 was invited to attend a reception with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Mumbai and New Delhi.
Jaspal Atwal was photographed posing with the prime minister’s wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, as well as Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi and Sonia Sidhu, Liberal MP for Brampton South.
“As you know, an individual planning on attending tonight’s reception had his invitation rescinded. Let me be clear – this person should never have been invited in the first place,” Sarai’s statement reads. “I alone facilitated his request to attend this important event. I should have exercised better judgment, and I take full responsibility for my actions.
“I apologize without reservation for my role in this situation, which has become an unfortunate distraction from the work, achievements, objectives of the Prime Minister and his team during this historic trip to India,” said Sarai, MP for Surrey Centre.
Trudeau didn’t name Atwal in a press conference in India but said “the individual in question never should have received an invitation and as soon as we found out we rescinded the invitation immediately.
“The member of parliament who included this individual has and will assume full responsibility for his action.”
It’s not yet known if Sarai will be disciplined by his party.
Trudeau said at a press conference in New Delhi last week that “the MP responsible has taken responsibility and I will be having a conversation with that MP in Canada next week.”
At a separate press conference, Trudeau told reporters that “Canada supports one United India.
“We are unanimous as a government, as ministers on this issue, as a prime minister on this issue, and that we look forward to continuing to work together understanding of course that Canada values freedom of expression, defending human rights and a broad range of perspectives. We will always stand against violent extremism, either at home or abroad, but we understand that diversity of views is one of the great strengths of Canada.”
Dosanjh took to Twitter to voice his outrage last week, shortly after the story broke.
“You what? Do we have no shame?” Dosanjh tweeted. “Khalistan has seeped deep into the veins of this administration.”
Atwal was formerly a member of the International Sikh Youth Federation, which aimed to secure an independent state in India called Khalistan. He was acquitted in a 1985 attack on Dosanjh, an opponent of Sikh extremism.
“I think young Sarai may have made a mistake but I don’t think that it’s his fault ultimately that the chap was included in the High Commission dinner or anything like that,” Dosanjh told the Now-Leader.
“Ultimately it can’t be, even if the process is they say MPs are allowed to have 15 people each, the MPs don’t decide who gets the invite, ultimately, I am assuming you have the security checks and the diplomatic checks and all of that. I’m not saying he has no role to play in it, obviously. He says he submitted the name, and I take his word for it. But I think ultimately the whole system failed. For all I know the guy (Atwal) may be a reformed man, who knows.”
As for the controversy itself, Donanjh said, “In terms of fallout, these things have a very short life. People forget about them.”
Atwal, who is a Facebook “friend” of Sarai’s, could not be reached for comment by press time.
“For him having a picture taken with someone, I mean he ingratiates himself with all sorts of people so he’s probably had pictures taken with everyone, so,” Dosanjh remarked.
Atwal’s current profile picture on his Facebook page is a photo of him posing with hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
“He’d probably have some with me too if he decided to post it,” Dosanjh said. “You know, you see him at different events – people come up and want to have pictures taken and you can’t be shoving everybody away, you have no security, right?”
A history of politicians rubbing shoulders with the wrong people
Indeed, this is certainly not the first time a Canadian politician has found himself or herself in damage control after posing for a photo with a controversial figure.
Media Waves Communications has an Oct. 20, 2015 photo showing Atwal with Randeep Sarai and fellow Surrey Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal.
Last September, a photo of Premier John Horgan, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner and Surrey-Panorama MLA Jinny Sims with a convicted gunman generated heat for those politicians. The picture showed the politicians posing with former Radio India managing director Maninder Gill at a private residence. Gill was sentenced to four years in jail for a shooting that took place outside a wedding at a Sikh temple in 2010. Gill appealed the conviction.
(A photo shows convicted gunman Maninder Gill pose with MLA Jinny Sims, Premier John Horgan and Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner at a private residence in September, 2017.)
The photo was taken at a private event hosted by Kulwant Dhesi.
Hepner said at the time that she attended the event as a guest and posing with Gill was “a mistake.” She said she didn’t consult with anyone prior to attending and wasn’t made aware of the guest list.
“People just said, ‘Come in, come in, take a picture.’ And I didn’t pay enough attention as I should have given that I know Maninder Gill and it’s not my intention to give a mixed message because I’m very clear about how passionately I feel about gun violence…. It’s heading into silly season, so I do have to be a bit more careful with whom I’m being photographed.”
Hepner also said she didn’t pay to attend and no one said it was a fundraiser.
“I didn’t stay for dinner,” she added.
Sims, who is standing right in front of Gill in the photo, released a statement saying she, too, was unaware of the guest list, or that Maninder Gill would be in attendance.
“Anyone who knows me understands that I abhor violence. I have spent my life fighting against violence of all types,” said Sims in her statement. “Maninder Gill was convicted of a very serious crime that I do not condone in any way. He should not have been there.”
Surrey Councillors Mike Starchuk and Tom Gill were also at the event.
Tom Gill was also photographed with Maninder Gill, who is the brother of Tom Gill’s mother-in-law.
In 2012, then-B.C. Liberal premier Christy Clark also found herself in hot water after Atwal showed up at provincial government budget event. Clark told the media she might have shook his hand but denied knowing him.
And in 2008, MP Dhaliwal found himself in the spotlight after writing a letter of support for international drug trafficker Ranjit Cheema to California District Judge Stephen Wilson, urging him to give Cheema a chance at rehabilitation.
Dhaliwal described Cheema as a man who would one day return to his family in Canada and seemed committed to rehabilitation.
“I personally believe, along with tougher laws, rehabilitation is fundamentally essential to make our society, our country, and our planet a better place to live,” Dhaliwal wrote in the letter on Government of Canada letterhead. “I have no doubt that if he (Cheema) is given support and direction, he will be a strong, active member of his community in years to come.”
Despite the support, Cheema was sentenced in California to five years in prison for conspiring to smuggle 200 kilograms of heroin from Pakistan to North America in 1998.
Dhaliwal, when confronted about the correspondence in the middle of a re-election campaign, regretted not having checked with police before writing the letter. Cheema was gunned down in Vancouver in May, 2012.
Dhaliwal could not be reached for comment. His assistant said Monday that he is touring with the international trade commission in Singapore and Thailand and won’t be back in Canada until March 3.
With files from Amy Reid and Black Press